January 14, 2016

Port Covington could be even bigger than it's hype

2016 has just started and Port Covington is already this year's "once-in-a-generation opportunity" for the city. But rather than the Red Line, Harbor Point, Harbor East, Westport, Inner Harbor 2.0, and all the various "last waterfront development" sites, this time maybe it really is.

And the basic reason is that Port Covington really consists of numerous important pieces of a very large ongoing puzzle, rather than a single ultimate "be-all and end-all" of urban development.

From the window of a light rail train - the empty Westport waterfront in the foreground,
Port Covington in the left background, linked by the Hanover Street bridge to Cherry Hill to the right

Most obviously: Kevin Plank's Under Armour is the kind of young growth company that every city bends over backwards to try to attract. The competition among cities is intense. Compare that to Exelon, which was already committed by law to locate in Baltimore even as they were showered with unnecessary tax breaks to ensure they'd go to Harbor Point anyway.

Just as importantly: Port Covington is gigantic, much bigger than Harbor Point, even including all its peripherals. The plan is for 13 million square feet of development, and the density isn't even that high.

More importantly: Port Covington is far larger than Under Armour could ever be, and would consist of far more development than just Under Armour.

Most important of all: Sagamore, Under Armour's development arm, has bought up the Westport waterfront site across the Middle Branch, making it larger still. Westport is the poster child for the "real Baltimore", a struggling neighborhood which has had to deal with the grandiose unfulfilled development promises of its adjacent empty waterfront.

Indeed, while Port Covington is part of south Baltimore, it is much more a part of the west than the east side of the city. That's not just Westport, but also Cherry Hill, Pigtown and all of West Baltimore.

The Port Covington project thus has a physical linkage from the glamorous waterfront to the areas of Baltimore that need help the most, and upon which the goal of saving the city must really be predicated - making the "Two Baltimores" into one Baltimore.

Meanwhile, Harbor Point's Michael Beatty had the audacity to demand that the city issue its entire Tax Increment Financing package to build all its lavish infrastructure and parks on a breakneck schedule, and the city complied. Of course, as the Exelon Tower nears completion in Harbor Point, the city still hasn't even begun construction of the promised Central Avenue bridge to get there from Harbor East. Ha ha.

But Port Covington is so gigantic that even Kevin Plank won't be able to get similar deference. The city should thus be able to increase its leverage to maximize the ratio of private to public investment. Even if the city doesn't play it's cards quite right (does everything ever go right?), that should be a big plus for the city.

Let's just hope for some semblance of competence and perspective....

Transit and transportation factors

In last week's presentation of the Under Armour Port Covington plan to the city, their transportation planner R. J. Eldridge said “If you’re a transportation geek, you’ll find it here.”

I guess they're talking to me with that quote, since I'm a "transportation geek". Especially since their plan includes a spur off the existing central light rail line from Westport to Port Covington, a concept which I was the first to raise here.

But a whole lot more people will need to "find it here" than just us transit and transportation geeks. This plan is so huge that it needs to be built around transit by necessity. There is no way automobiles can supply anywhere near the total of the access requirements, since the plan calls for an astounding 13 million square feet of development. That's enough that it could complete the gutting of downtown Baltimore that has already been started by Harbor East and Harbor Point on the east side.

Sagamore Development Company's proposed Port Covington plan

On the highway side, the plan includes a total reconfiguration of the northbound off-ramps from Interstate 95 to both Hanover and McComas Streets, which would be a sufficiently complex endeavor to make the light rail spur look like child's play. The murky graphics presented so far are not able to convey what this entails, but the motivation appears NOT to be to provide greater access from the ramps.

The plan's main motivation for moving the ramps appears to be to create a stronger classic urban style street grid extending southward from existing South Baltimore. They also would like to lower Hanover Street down to meet this new grid, which would be another daunting project.

The desired outcome appears to be more of a transit-orientation for the development, but not necessarily better access, either from a better or higher quality transit or street system. We shall see.

Reasons to believe

Here are some reasons for hope:

1 - Hopefully, Sagamore's embrace of transit is real and not just hype. In contrast, after an entire decade of Red Line planning which twisted the plan into a dead-end $3 billion boondoggle, Harbor East developer John Paterakis decided to pull out the rug, forcing the line to be further contorted to push the Harbor East station further from his future development as well as Harbor Point. Paterakis and his Harbor Point colleague Michael Beatty simply and rationally didn't believe in the Red Line. We should and must do better in Port Covington.

2 - The Central Light Rail Line has already existed since the early 1990s, and is easily poised for a simple branch to serve Port Covington. Yes, people rightly criticize the existing central line's flaws, but compared to the Red Line as was proposed, it's actually a very good rail line. It has close to twice the capacity per train, it has potentially very good connectivity to the Metro, to the bus system and a large part of future city growth, and the south half of the line from downtown to the airport and Westport/Port Covington is actually relatively fast and conflict-free.

3 - Under Armour clearly wants a non-auto dependent plan. Since it is clearly oriented to a classic urban street grid and is tied into the rest of South Baltimore under Interstate 95, it's not a suburban-style fortress. It is a contradiction that isolated peninsulas like this and Harbor Point are considered the most desirable development sites, but that's just another challenge we have to deal with.

Balanced investment strategies

The overall key to the project is phasing the public infrastructure in a way that maximizes benefit to the city as a whole. This can be done because unlike Harbor East/Harbor Point, Port Covington can actually be part of a wide-ranging development strategy which encompasses large parts of the city which desperately need it. Here are the steps:

1 - It starts with Westport, a part of old Baltimore right across the Middle Branch from Port Covington which has hit hard times since speculators swooped in to buy old houses, then sit and wait for the long overdue big development. Westport is already served by the light rail line and since Under Armour has also bought up its big waterfront property, they could quickly pick up where bankrupt developer Patrick Turner left off.

2 - It then proceeds northward on the light rail line to the downtrodden Howard Street corridor, which would be the key downtown linkage to the Under Armour empire. This west side area has been hit hard by the eastward drift of downtown toward the waterfront of Harbor East, Harbor Point, Fells Point and Canton. Port Covington helps return Howard/Lexington to its rightful historic place at the center of the city.

A new Port Covington Red Line - which shares the existing Central Light Rail (Blue Line) tracks between
 a Downtown Lexington Market Metro (Green Line) Hub and Westport, where it branches off to Port Covington 
3 - This in turn is highly complimentary to building a far less expensive and more cost-effective west-only Red Line. Such a Red Line could either terminate at a comprehensive transit hub including the Lexington Market Metro Station and the existing light rail line, or actually be physically linked to the Howard Street light rail line. If the latter, the Port Covington branch could actually become the east portion of the Red Line, replacing what had been proposed. The west side Red Line would be built as previous planned, then proceed into downtown and Howard/Lexington, south on the existing line to Camden Yards and Westport, then east to Port Covington.

The alternative concept of physically terminating the west Red Line inside the Lexington Market Metro Station should still be considered, and may be the better option. In this case, the Port Covington light rail branch would mostly likely proceed north on Howard Street to Penn Station. (Of course, the areas intended to be served by the defunct east Red Line also still need attention. The east waterfront needs more effective bus service and perhaps streetcars, and the Metro should be extended eastward from Hopkins Hospital, toward Hopkins Bayview.)

4 - A west Red Line has its own important development opportunities. It would directly serve the million-plus square foot Metro West complex abandoned by the federal government, which needs to step up and ensure its redevelopment. A west-only Red Line would also serve the University of Maryland downtown campus, which was supposed to get two Red Line stations which both had to be scuttled due to the cost and engineering difficulties of the tunnel. And new emphasis should now be given to getting rid of the "Highway to Nowhere" and replacing it with genuine transit oriented development and integration with the rest of West Baltimore

Compared to Harbor East/Harbor Point

Port Covington is far more crucial to the city's future than Harbor East and Harbor Point.

Harbor East and Harbor Point plans created controversies that pitted them against "The Other Baltimore". The powers-that-be tried to defend the huge tax break deals for these projects by saying that they only involved money which the city would never see unless they were developed.

That didn't wash. If the city gives the greatest tax breaks to the most desirable developments, it creates severe disadvantages for every other lesser potential project down the pecking order.

Then the only advantage is spin-off development. With prime development properties located out on isolated peninsulas, the spin-offs of Harbor East and Harbor Point are relatively slim or even negative, because it takes away from downtown. The downtown powers-that-be even argued that Exelon should have been relocated in downtown or kept at their current location, the Inner Harbor Candler Building, until they realized it was a losing battle.

So in sum, the first key to Port Covington is to really use the tax breaks in a well-controlled and phased manner to induce maximum private investment.

And secondly, maximize spin-off development opportunities.

If this is done, Port Covington could be even bigger than its hype.


  1. All this sounds wonderful and represents great progress. With regard to the Light Rail connection, why not take this opportunity to connect federal Hill to the system? Swinging the Light Rail line to the east just past Camden Yards with a connection to Federal Hill along either Hamburg Street or Ostend Street and then turning south along Race Street to the proposed Port Covington development could add additional connections and ridership to the system while avoiding the expense of the crossing across the Middle Branch.

  2. George... I enjoy reading your articles on transit and development in the City. In your transit map you show modifications to the Central Light Rail Line. I am curious on you take on finishing the spur into Penn Station? There is a south bound spur and infrastructure for a north bound spur which would allow trains to run north from Penn Station to Hunt Valley while funneling more DC Bound Baltimore Residents to Penn Station. Incidentally, that line could almost be extended through Penn Station and south under I-83 to Harbor East/President Street with several (under highway) stops to serve the eastern side of the CBD along with another transfer to the Metro Subway at Shot Tower. It could loop over to the Fallsway @ Fayette and continue down President St to Harbor East. If we wanted to get really creative it could also travel west on Pratt or Lombard and connect back with the Central Light Rail Line on Howard and have the downtown completed encircled and we would have our own "Loop" Like Chicago...

    1. Small point: My name is Gerald, not George. Back in the 1990s, the MTA's plan was indeed to complete the light rail loop from Penn Station down the Jones Falls to Pratt Street, just as you said. Later they decided that wasn't a good idea because it would be way too slow, and people like to travel in straight lines, not loops. I agree.

      Chicago's loop is much smaller, quicker, totally elevated and has a very high trip density, so it works much better.

      The MTA has never really figured out what to do with that little spur to Penn Station. Right now, they make only one run per half-hour between there and Camden Yards, which is hardly worth the trouble. I was still at the City Planning Dept. back in the early '90s when it was planned, and I argued then that it wasn't worth building it. Instead, just create a very good pedestrian connection from the Mt. Royal Station which all trains use. I lost.

      You can read more about the history at my post:


  4. West light rail along road at 40 and road to no where, should culminate at State Center. The Metro Subway and Light Rail lines already go to Lexington Market from State Center. The cost of building another tunnel to Lexington Market would be exorbitant -and redundant. That fact that State Center is the only place where the two lines convege, other than Charles Center, make it a potential hub.
    The for State Center to become the West Side transportation hub for bus, train and light rail is enormous and I'm not sure why it's being overlooked by planners.

  5. I have always seen the Hanover Street Bridge as a pedestrian fishing bridge that truly connects the prominade and Gwenn Falls Trails to Cherry Hill Park. Who knows maybe even an airport trail connection in the future.
    I think we definitely need to improve the 95 south exit to route 2 for the enormous amount of truck traffic. The solution is to build a new lighted suspension bridge. Plank should support this.
    A few other cities have repurposed their historic old bridges in this manner. These bridges are becoming destinations in themselves. I am certain that Hanover Bridge would be no exception. The fishing is superb in Middle Branch. The bridge is low and perfectly situated for premium fishing. And the much needed connection to Westport and Hanover Street Park.

    1. That's a great idea! I'm not a fisherman so I'm very happy to hear it's "superb" for that, and it would go hand in hand with the light rail line from Port Covington to Brooklyn that I've proposed - https://baltimoreinnerspace.blogspot.com/2016/09/big-port-covington-needs-even-bigger.html

      The city is supposed to release it's long-range draft alternatives analysis soon, so that should spark the debate. The deck repaving plan recently released is just a short-term band-aid. I question why we would sink money into a bridge right before doing a long range fix? It seems to be politically motivated. Why is the City Council pushing fixing the potholes instead of a long range vision? Fixing potholes come under "pavement management", a precise process conducted by engineers who look at allocating priorities all over the city. Or did the city's engineers just screw up by neglecting the bridge? (That wouldn't be the first time.)

      Of course, as usual, it will all come down to money. A new bridge for heavy truck and car traffic would reportedly be very expensive, even if it's only a mundane utilitarian structure. The Middle Branch is shallow and lacks the boat traffic to warrant a long-span suspension bridge. But then, if the new bridge is ugly, that's an even better reason to keep the existing cool looking bridge for bikes, fishers, light rail and people.